Image of a person with gloves holding a petri dish.

On May 10, about 130 scientists, entrepreneurs and others held an invitation-only event at Harvard. Organisers told invitees not to talk to the press and not to discuss pending publications related to the topic they were there to discuss. Wait, what? Were they afraid of public panic? Was an asteroid on its way to destroy Earth? Was a catastrophic virus on the loose?

No, they were discussing future research, and how to get a lot more money for it. But they knew that if word got out people might be upset. Because they discussed building a completely synthetic version of a human genome. Not actually artificial people, but a huge step forward in synthetic biology. One of those invited, Drew Endy, a Stanford professor who is one of the leaders in the field, not only refused to come but tweeted: “If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research (synthesizing a human genome) you are doing something wrong.”

Private water-cooler chat is certainly one way that ideas are developed. But over 100 people flown in from around the country —...